Every time I give a seminar about writing for the Web, I talk about the content inventory (also sometimes called a "content matrix"). And every time I do, inevitably I get an email from someone that says, basically, "The content inventory has CHANGED MY LIFE."
I know many, many people who would rather stab themselves in the eye with a pencil than be responsible for a large-scale content inventory. Me, I’m weird. I love ‘em.
A content inventory is nothing more than a spreadsheet that captures each web page or content module you’re responsible for creating, reviewing, or caring for. It usually looks like this (click image to enlarge):
When does the content inventory come in handy?
At the beginning of a project
Before anyone commits to any content at all, a content strategist, information architect, web editor or web writer should conduct a content audit of all current web content. The output of that audit is a content inventory.
Ideally, the source content isn’t just being catalogued (quantified) but also carefully analyzed (qualified) for accuracy, consistency, relevance, voice and tone, and so forth.
This exercise gives the entire project team a very clear understanding of what there is to work with, which in turn should inform content strategy, schedule, and scope.
During information architecture (IA)
As any seasoned web project manager will tell you, the number one killer of both budgets and schedules is usually content. It’s far too easy for the IA to draw boxes that suddenly create nightmarish, impossible content requirements. With an accurate content inventory of proposed IA requirements, everyone can keep an eye on what’s really being proposed and what’s actually possible.
During content development
Web writers everywhere: Do not, repeat, DO NOT begin writing for a website or CMS without a content inventory. Opening up a Word doc and diving in will inevitably cause you heartache and despair. Having a clear list of what you need to create, how it’s structured, and associated requirements will make you a much happier camper.
If you’re not handed a content inventory by someone on the project team, step up and create it yourself. You will immediately become everyone’s new best friend.
Then, you can structure your documents using the same labeling or numbering system as the content inventory (which, in turn, should use the same system as the information architecture documentation). Dreamy, right?
Even if you have a big, expensive content management system, it still may be useful for you to maintain a content inventory. Simply having all of your web content assets listed in one place can help you see important content attributes at-a-glance, like who owns what, or what still needs updating.
It’s also an outstanding way to keep up with your ever-evolving web presence. Lou Rosenfeld makes a great case for the "rolling content inventory," saying that "we’ve got to get used to the reality that ongoing, partial content inventories are likely to be far more cost-effective than trying to achieve the perfect, all-encompassing snapshot of our content."
Yes, it’s manual, but ultimately, what really improves an organization’s web content is human oversight, not automated technology. The content inventory requires a live person to catalog and comment on content. This, I believe, is a very, very good thing.
Reach out and hug a spreadsheet
Jeff Veen called creating a content inventory "a mind-numbing odyssey through your website." I actually think it’s more like an enlightening journey. What do you have? What do you need? What don’t you need? Where can things improve?
I’m not saying it’s not painful. But sometimes, the truth hurts.
This portion of "Tough Love" brought to you by MS Excel.